biographyology

Biography and the Backstory

by

Carl Rollyson

One of the frustrations of writing biography—at least for me—is getting to the backstory, filling in the backgrounds of those who have come in contact with my main subject. I’m having an especially hard time of it with my Dana Andrews biography. I’m constantly tempted to go off on tangents, to spend more time on, for example, parallels between William Holden and Dana Andrews. I’m fascinated by the curious reversals of their fates. Holden, after a starring role in Golden Boy (1939), spent most of the 1940s in frustrating inferior movies, while Andrews had a great string of successes: Laura (1944), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Daisy Kenyon (1947)—to name just three. Holden hit it big in 1950 with Sunset Boulevard, presaging a decade or more during which he served as one of Hollywood’s top stars, starring in pictures such as Stalag 17 (1953) and Picnic (1955). But around the same time, Andrews’s fortunes began to decline, and he was forced to accept second leads in major pictures and starring roles on the B list, eventually settling for even less with small supporting roles playing generals, admirals, CIA chiefs, and other dignitaries—when he was not filling out his program with second rate science fiction pictures and rather woeful westerns.

But to dwell on this twosome at length would divert my already long biography of Andrews and dilute the compelling human-interest story whereby Dana rises above his latter-day decline with a dignity and honesty that few actors in Hollywood have ever achieved. I’ll just add one more word on Holden. He knew Dana pretty well. They served together on the board of the Screen Actors Guild. Perhaps more importantly, they knew one another as high functioning alcoholics. When Holden died in a drinking bout that finally got the best of him, cracking his head open on a bedside table, Dana went public with what he knew about his friend’s alcoholism—not the thing to do in Hollywood in 1981. These revelations made him unpopular, even with his younger brother, the actor Steve Forrest. But Dana, then sober for a decade, had made commercials for the Department of Transportation, naming himself as an alcoholic and drunken driver who could have killed someone on the road, and he thought the public should know the truth about Bill Holden. Dana, who did not drink during the last twenty years of his life, liked to tell the story about a lunch with Holden and Ronald Reagan, the latter then president of the Screen Actors Guild. They ordered drinks. When the waiter returned, Andrews and Holden ordered another round. When the waiter left, Reagan told his friends that he had a drink, then asked, “Why would I want another one?”

That last story typifies what I am getting at: I could go on and on, detailing, for example, Dana’s relationships with fellow actors such as Ward Bond, Walter Brennan, Arthur Kennedy, Claude Rains, Thomas Mitchell, and John Carradine. But I am concentrating on the drama of Dana’s life and how he performed his roles, and in the end I cannot do these other actors justice without making a 140,000-word biography into a kind of ensemble performance entailing more chapters than are good for my narrative. Nothing wrong with that kind of book—if I wanted to scale back my close examination of Dana’s personality. But my biographies tend to be more psychological than social or historical, although of course cultural context has its place in my work too. Only when I have forsaken biographical narrative altogether—as in my book, Amy Lowell Among Her Contemporaries—has the backstory come alive, so that I can pair the poet with Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, and D. H. Lawrence, for example, and do full justice to the cohort of writers who supported and opposed her. In this vein, you might consider two fine prosopographies: Ann Waldron’s Close Connections: Caroline Gordon and the Southern Renaissance, and Marion Meade’s Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties.

Or, if you are a movie buff, try Manny Pacheco’s just published Forgotten Hollywood Forgotten History, which takes an unusual approach that treats character actors in terms of the historical epics they appeared in. I warn you that Pacheco’s prose is not analytical. For the most part he does not interpret. Instead, he writes engaging overviews, situating actors in key roles that make their careers a little more familiar, even if you’ve watched these films on Turner Classic movies, American Movie Classics, or similar channels.

Pacheco’s book is a little over a hundred pages, and I wish he had fattened it up with more anecdotes. Occasionally he is not to be trusted. Sinclair Lewis is not the most important writer of the first half of the twentieth century—his Nobel Prize notwithstanding. But for the students I teach, who know next to nothing about history or Hollywood, this book fills a gap, giving them the gist of several important pictures and actors quickly in an engaging and accessible style.

My favorite chapter is devoted to Walter Brennan. It contains Pacheco’s best four sentences. After explaining that Brennan is the “most honored American male actor in history, winning three of the first five Supporting Actor awards,” Pacheco evokes the persona of a man seemingly born to play archetypal characters: “He also embodies any individual that may have been born around and west of the Mississippi. Looking far older than his years, Brennan could be called upon to play roles that were based in fact or fiction. He seemingly lived throughout the nineteenth century and the fight for this country’s quest to reach ‘from sea to shining sea’ . . . at least on celluloid.” The ellipsis is Pacheco’s and seems to suggest that he paused when he realized that movies and history can become conflated in our imaginations. This phenomenon explains why it is difficult for me to believe that Davy Crockett did not look like Fess Parker. Warren Beatty made the same point to Jack Nicholson, who said he could not possibly play the svelte Eugene O’Neill. But Beatty knew his man and realized what a powerful performance Nicholson would deliver, telling him that after Reds (1981) was released, people would talk about how much Nicholson resembled O’Neill. Look at those portraits of O’Neill with his haunting, eviscerating eyes, and then watch Nicholson’s gaze bore into Diane Keaton during their love scenes. (A special DVD edition of Reds includes marvelous interviews with Beatty, Nicholson, and others.)

I wish Pacheco had written more about Ward Bond’s rightwing politics, which led to Bond’s estrangement from Dana Andrews. Or about Claude Rains, a man who could be smug and insufferable. In Pacheco’s chapter on Rains, you get a benign impression of the actor. I remember British Labour leader Michael Foot once telling me how much he admired Rains and wanted to meet him. Michael’s wife, Jill Craigie, a screenwriter and director and the subject of one of my biographies, warned Michael that he would not like an actor who was so full of himself. But Michael, an enthusiast, got his wish. Michael never told me in so many words what happened—except by the look on his face when he said, “Jill was right.”

And while we are on the subject of egomaniacs, John Carradine comes to mind. He got his start, as Dana did, at the Pasadena Playhouse. They later appeared together in two films, Swamp Water (1941) and Fallen Angel (1945). I’m told that when he spoke at a memorial event for Dana, Carradine never referred to Dana at all. Carradine was, I believe, one on those self-involved actors that Dana shied away from because, as he commented in his diary, the society of actors can be an awfully solipsistic. Carradine had a marvelous voice (as did Dana), but he fell in love with his own instrument, which is why he makes such a wonderful con man in Fallen Angel. Dana also plays a con man in the film, but one who is alive to the consequences of his deceit, of the toll it takes, and who, ultimately, tells the truth so that he can live with himself. Otto Preminger, who made quite a study of Dana, insisted on casting him in a role that Dana initially declined but as a contract actor had to accept. Why did Dana demur? Ah, you will have to read my book.

You see what is happening. Everything leads back to my biographical subject, my obsession with Dana Andrews.

Books mentioned in this column:
Amy Lowell Among Her Contemporaries by Carl Rollyson (iUniverse, 2010)
Close Connections: Caroline Gordon and the Southern Renaissance by Ann Waldron (Putnam, 1987)
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties by Marion Meade (Nan A. Talese, 2004)
Forgotten Hollywood Forgotten History by Manny Pacheco (Book Publishers Network, 2009)

 

Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.

 


 

 
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